COLUMBIA — One dugout buzzed with excitement. The other consoled a teammate, contemplated optimistic math and perhaps marveled at how its coach’s prediction came true.
“The pressure is all to them right now,” Saint Louis coach Darin Hendrickson told his gleeful players after they scored two runs in the top of the eighth inning Friday night to tie South Carolina in their NCAA tournament regional opener.
“I thought we really had them,” said
Billikens first baseman Mike Vigliarolo.
Every day in practice this week, USC coach Chad Holbrook prepared his kids for moments like this, because he knows how often the past three tournaments hurled them in front of the Gamecocks, and how they navigated to back-to-back national titles and a runner-up finish.
“Adversity is coming our way,” Holbrook preached, each day. “You’ll play a long time if you handle it the right way. You won’t play long if you don’t respond to it.”
USC’s dugout fell mostly quiet in the middle of the eighth. Some players patted third baseman Chase Vergason on the back and told him, “We’re all behind you.” Vergason leaned on the dugout railing, staring out toward the field, where his throwing error just cost USC two runs. Holbrook laid out the simple numbers for the Gamecocks: They had six outs left and Saint Louis had three. He reminded them of his adversity message.
“I told you it was coming,” he said. “It’s come. Now let’s respond the right way.”
The response came quickly, and with gusto, against Saint Louis’ bullpen after starter Clay Smith exited, having pitched admirably. The Billikens cracked the door for the Gamecocks, and they barged through, announcing themselves again as college baseball’s virtuosos of postseason drama. USC scored four runs in the eighth, won 7-3, added some more miles to their fans’ tickers and ushered everybody in June, happily sweating through the anxiety and their shirts again.
The top-seeded Gamecocks will play No. 4 regional seed Liberty tonight at 8, after the No. 3 Flames upset No. 2 Clemson earlier Friday.
(USC is the visiting team against Liberty.) If it happens at all, the much-anticipated USC-Clemson rivalry matchup must wait until sometime Sunday, provided Clemson beats Saint Louis this afternoon.
Liberty faces daunting history. USC is 56-8 all-time in NCAA tournament home games and has won 25 straight, since 2002. The first of the 25 was five-run, ninth-inning comeback for a 6-4 win that sent USC to Omaha. No. 25, while not as consequential, thrilled every bit as much.
Joey Pankake led off the bottom of the eighth by reaching on a fielding error by the shortstop, on an oddly spinning ball. Hendrickson knew that was critical because, “You can’t let these guys off the hook at all,” he said. Three batters later, USC had Pankake at third and Grayson Greiner at first, with one out and the score still knotted. Kyle Martin was up, playing in his 29th game this year and starting for just the 13th time. He chopped a 1-1 inside slider to first.
The ball sailed up and up, toward Vigliarolo. He jumped, extending every inch of his 6-1 body. Holbrook knew USC would get at least one run. The ball hit Vigliarolo’s glove. Martin thought he caught it. Instead, it clipped the edge of the glove and bounced into right field.
“We just couldn’t shut the door,” Vigliarolo said.
The Gamecocks’ added three more runs and their fans’ joy-misery-joy cycle – business as usual this time of year at Carolina Stadium – was complete.
Saint Louis stunned the 7,400-plus fans by scoring two runs in the top of the eighth. After a wild pitch by closer Tyler Webb, superb all year, the Billikens had runners on second and third with two outs. Then Michael Bozarth bounced an innocent grounder to Vergason.
Because of the wild pitch, Vergason had no force-out options. He shuffled, cocked his arm and sailed the inning-ending throw over first base. Like that, it was 3-3. The fans who stood and clapped in unison moments earlier sat and gasped in disbelief. Afterward, nobody in USC’s locker room felt happier than Vergason, redeemed as he was by his teammates, by spinning grounders, by sailing choppers, by the postseason fates that the Gamecocks stared down again, and refused to blink.
“He’ll pick himself up off the mat,” Holbrook said. “We tend to do that around here.”